Drugs Without Borders

Although I had heard reports about drug-violence problems in Mexico—mostly from friends who received travel warnings while planning spring-break trips to Cancun—a recent trip to Mexico proved that the drug problem producing this violence is unavoidable even in the “safest” parts of the country. After only a week, my family stumbled upon a murder scene and learned of the death of a close friend at the hands of La Familia. A recent law to legalize possession of small amounts of drugs in Mexico is a step in the right direction, but much more remains to be done.

I once considered myself strongly in support of the tough measures that President Felipe Calderón has been taking to fight the war on drugs in Mexico. Believing that sometimes things must get worse before they get better, I supported Calderon’s aggressive campaign against the drug cartels. However, this policy has not proven effective after more than two years.

Mexico has finally altered its approach to the drug problem, if only slightly. In August, Mexico legalized the possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. While this may bring about slight improvements in the justice system in Mexico, the law is unlikely to halt the violence that stems in large part from Calderón’s policies and the consumption habits of the U.S. These two forces are undermining the stability of Mexico and will soon threaten the U.S as well.

The new law in Mexico allows a person to carry enough marijuana to roll four joints and enough cocaine to snort about four lines. The law will be a boon for drug addicts and American tourists, who will no longer fear sleepless nights in Mexican prison (As long as they forgo the fifth joint). But it is unlikely to have any other obvious effects. The law is a step in the right direction and will stop some of the corruption in police forces: It has been common practice for people found possessing drugs to face jail time, unless, of course, they pay off the police officers.

In reality, the new law may stop some corruption on a very small scale, but the pressing issue of increasing violence in Mexico will not be solved. Profits reaped by the drug cartels will remain high because of the strong demand from the U.S. and Europe and because of remaining prohibitive laws that drive up the price of the drugs. The drug cartels most responsible for the violence are still going to trade within a black market and operate outside the regulatory strictures of government because the sale of drugs is still illegal. Weapons will remain easily accessible to drug cartels because of lax laws in the United States, allowing the cartels to act as de facto militias. Meanwhile, Calderón’s policy of military action will continue to force cartels to uproot, move into the territory of rivals, and perpetuate a cycle of violence and bloodshed.


There is only one solution remaining: Further legalize drugs in Mexico while also taking steps to legalize marijuana in the U.S.

The Obama administration should be lauded for not pressuring Calderón to veto the recent law, like the Bush administration did in 2006 when a similar bill was being considered. The Obama administration seems to be moving toward a more liberal policy regarding marijuana, but it is moving at a much slower pace than Mexico. Attorney General Eric Holder recently directed federal prosecutors to shift their focus away from cases involving medical marijuana infractions and to focus on higher-level drug traffickers.

America’s role in solving the problem is crucial. Former President Vicente Fox recently gave a speech in which he stated that the export market of the United States might become even more valuable if the domestic market in Mexico were to collapse due to the increasing instability. As instability increases, the domestic drug trade will become less profitable, creating even more incentives to trade within the United States.

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the legalization of drugs in the U.S. as a solution to the problems in Mexico. He cites the historical analogy of the failed policy of Prohibition during the Great Depression, which was ended partly because of increasing violence in the U.S. Yet lawmakers in Congress seem reluctant to even broach the subject of drug legalization. Representative Barney Frank ’62 (D-Mass) has been one of the few to attempt to change the law with his Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008, which he sponsored to end federal penalties for marijuana possession. Besides Frank, however, few congressmen have touched this taboo issue. As violence in Mexico increases, with inevitable spillover into the U.S., America will have to end the “War on Drugs,” which President Barack Obama has already admitted was an utter failure.

There are signs that a shift may be on the way: In January, the city council of El Paso, which borders Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez—arguably the most dangerous city in Mexico—passed a resolution to open up dialogue on an end to drug prohibition in the United States. The resolution was vetoed by the mayor, partly because he was afraid of losing federal funds for the city, but nevertheless achieved the intended effect of raising awareness of the issue.

Over the weekend, gunmen murdered a peasant union leader and 14 others in the latest high-profile drug killings. With violence and bloodshed at the doorstep of our border with Mexico, America can no longer ignore the deteriorating circumstances of our neighbor to the south. Now that force has failed, an end to drug prohibition is the obvious next step.


Charles A. LaCalle ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House.